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War in Israel: American Jews Respond to Human Impact of Violence in Gaza

Since Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense last Wednesday, the American Jewish organizations have largely stood in solidarity. Nonetheless, there are indications that some in the community are uncomfortable with the conflict’s human impact.

After all, American media coverage has made the fatalities on both sides difficult to ignore. On Thursday, the front page of the Washington Post depicted the grieving BBC Arabic journalist holding the body of his eleven-month-old son, who died during an Israeli air strike in Gaza.

Official statements by major Jewish religious, community and political organizations overwhelmingly defended Israel’s right to take military action in order to protect its citizens against rockets in Gaza. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents hundreds of Jewish synagogues across the United States, said in a letter to President Obama on Thursday: “We believe that the Israeli Defense Force acted with patience, prudence and vigilance waiting out a rocket barrage of hundreds of rockets from Gaza that lasted several weeks before striking back. As you know, the ongoing assault against Israeli civilians in the south is a threat that no other nation would have tolerated for as long.”

The Jewish National Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, StandWithUs, J Street, the Orthodox Union and the Union of Reform Judaism all released statements expressing similar messages of solidarity.

However, many of these statements also express concern for the civilians affected on the other side of the conflict. “We are, as ever, greatly saddened by the lost of innocent lives Israeli or Palestinian,” the Union of Reform Judaism said Thursday. Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, an influential American Jewish writer on Israel, chided the Israel Defense Forces on Friday for its “disgraceful” social media campaign. Goldberg reminded the IDF that “All death is tragic, even the deaths of your enemies.”

On college campuses, where conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes particularly contentious due to the combustible mix of passionate organizations in the same physical location, there have been a variety of responses to recent events. For example, University of Maryland students held a pro-Israel prayer vigil at their Hillel on Thursday night. On Friday, Students for Palestinian Equal Rights protested Israeli’s actions in Gaza in Stanford University’s White Plaza.

American Jewish students have increasingly looked for new ways to discuss the conflict and reconcile their strong support of Israel’s right to exist and self-defense with their concern about long-term prospects for peace in the region. J Street U, the campus arm of the pro-Israel, pro-two-state-solution, predominantly Jewish lobby group J Street, has been hosting and planning open conversations on the recent events in Gaza. Over the weekend, I spoke to several J Street U chapter leaders who told me about events on their campus.

“We are hoping to open up space for people to talk about these events,” said Sarah Stern, president of the J Street U Bard chapter, which will host an event on Monday evening.

“We wanted to set a precedent at Brown of informed, honest and rigorous discussions on very difficult issues. Other groups have started to organize actions and political events, but no one's set up this kind of discussion space,” Harpo Jaeger of J Street U Brown said.

J Street U at Johns Hopkins University hosted a conversation on Thursday that drew students with a variety of opinions on the conflict. Hopkins J Street U co-president Rachel Cohen said that at their event, “People expressed fear, worry and confusion. There were questions about what is our responsibility, how do we respond, and what can we do.”

As J Street U Board Member Yonah Lieberman of J Street U Michigan puts it, “Just as innocent Israelis are suffering, innocent Gazans are suffering.”

The rapid growth of J Street U on college campuses, from 7 chapters in fall 2010 to 44 chapters currently, demonstrates growing support for a moderate Israel policy that advocates a two-state solution to ensure Israel’s future as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people.

These conversations also underscore the delicacy and difficulty of responding to events in Israel. The American Jewish community has been engaging in lengthy and sometimes contentious conversations for years about how to balance support for Israel with concerns about Israel’s actions, whether these concerns be about Israel’s military engagement with Gaza or treatment of women who have tried to pray at the Western Wall.

Of course, while American Jews find it challenging to express criticism of events in Israel, often for fear of being dismissed as “ill-informed,” Israelis themselves have no such qualms. On Thursday, over 200 Israelis in Tel Aviv protested Operation Pillar of Defense.

Israelis in Tel Aviv protest the Gaza conflict.

A kibbutz resident in southern Israel wrote a column titled “A message to Israel’s leaders: Don’t defend me not like this" which appeared in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Thursday.

At the same time, these same critics have noted that Israel has improved since its last Gaza offensive, Operation Cast Lead in winter 2008-2009. Jeffrey Goldberg said Friday that “Israel is getting better at not killing civilians in Gaza" and while “the numbers are of course too large, and this could change in an instant ... right now the casualty rate is much lower than in Operation Cast Lead."

The Jewish Federation of North America said Sunday that “Israel makes every effort to limit civilian harm, a difficult challenge as Hamas launches rockets from civilian areas. Hamas admits to using civilians to shield terrorist activities.”

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